May 2005
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Month May 2005

Rocket Launch

We launched model rockets out in Redmond today, in the slough valley by Theno’s Dairy. BillDsc00337_1 Barnes Dsc00339organized it like last year, and the event included folks from Network Clarity, ex-Internap employees, and some other folks (UW, NorthwestNet, etc). We spent the afternoon gauging wind conditions, and eventually building up to F and G-powered motors, including three flights of the new Aerotech rocket I built this year. 

The Airspike flew twice with F20 motors, which was pretty impressive, but the G80 flight was high enough that we briefly lost track of it before it came down in a nearby Dsc00346soccer field. We flew a variety of other rockets, including a two-stage Mongoose built by Chris Wheeler and his nephew, the Mean Machine, and  a Saturn V replica running an E motor. The Saturn didn’t fly straight, but it sure has a slow, impressive liftoff. 

We’re going to do another launch in August, at which I hope to have a telemetry-producing rocket, or possibly a clustered motor.  I’d like to NAR certify to produce bigger rockets, but I doubt I’ll be able to make the investment of time this year. 

Book #31: Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow

Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe lived up to his previous work, despite a seemingly weird and wacky plot device, the “tribes” based on time zones. Like most of Doctorow’s writing, the story moves at an incredible pace, and quite quickly I was amazed at the depth to which he’d worked out a plausible future with cultural “tribes” based on the time-zone affiliations of those who are deeply addicted to wireless communications. Once sold on this somewhat odd future vision, though, Doctorow delivers a wacky but well written story, and almost before you know it, the book is over.

This brings me to what is, perhaps, my only real “beef” with Doctorow’s fiction thus far: it’s time for him to write something more substantial. His first novel and Eastern Standard Tribe are both fairly short, and now that he’s proven his chops as an idea guy, I’d like to see more development, more depth, and more story. Let’s hope this happens as his writing matures, because these “snack” stories go too quickly, leaving me back in reality facing a gigantic pile of non-fiction. In the meantime, his next novel is pre-selling on Amazon…

Notable Recent Wines

I’m catching up a bit, finally, so I thought I’d write about a few of the notable wines I’ve tried lately.

Earlier this month at our regular tasting group, several white burgundies really caught everyone’s attention. Ramonet’s 1988 Morgeots was gorgeous, presenting a lush, spicy nose and terrific weight and depth on the palate. Even more surprising, however, was the Ramonet 1987 Ruchottes. This was a bit oxidized, with a hint of apple and botyrtis on the nose, but since this was the only good 1987 white burgundy any of us had ever tried (the vintage sucked across the board), we were pretty impressed.

This was followed by a nearly-perfect bottle of Niellon 1990 Chevalier-Montrachet, brought back from – of all places – Gillette, Wyoming by Chuck Miller. The wine was massive (for a white), with an incredibly long finish and presence on the palate. The wine held up well for several hours in the glass and stood up well to the various reds on the table. It was that kind of white wine. Sadly, this wine is incredibly rare, but it was terrific to get a chance to try it.

Also that evening, a Cos D’Estournel 1979 was wonderful, though still quite primary and leaving us to wonder if it will actually change much in the years ahead. We always wonder that, however, and the wines always mature. Except the 1986’s, of course…

My friend Bryan was in town recently, so we dug out Tempier Bandol and went to Cafe Campagne. I brought the 1993 Migoua to match up with his 1993 Cabassaou. Vinny brought a terrific 89 Tourtine, which was much more ready than either of the 93’s, of course. We started with a half-bottle of 1990 Clos Ste. Hune, which was slightly corked and not showing anything interesting. Fortunately, Campagne had a half-bottle of the 1987 Frederic Emile on the list, and we tried another 1987 white wine. Still very much alive, but with definite oxidation, it was simply nice to try it. The 1989 Tourtine was a classic maturing Tempier, with a spicy sweet nose with “tree bark” (as we’ve come to call the aroma), and a brown sugar sweetness on the palate with plenty of minerals and fruit. This was followed by the 1993 Migoua, which was pretty young and primary still (hold ’em!) with an abundance of the wild blackberry aroma, hints of blood and herbs on the palate, but mostly still tannic and unformed. The 93 Cabassaou, in contrast, was much tamer, with a restrained and somewhat delicate nose, but immense depth on the palate. Dark and almost beef-like, the minerals and tree bark really came out only on the finish. A terrific evening.

Most recently, a couple of us met at Seattle Wine Storage for a casual Sunday tasting, and ended up following a California cab tasting that had happened the night before. So we got to try a good number of 2001 “cult” cabs that had been opened the night before, and a couple of Washington counterparts. As usual, my impressions of the Leonetti Reserve were strongly negative – Figgins is a talented winemaker aiming at a vision which I simply don’t share. The wine is oaky to the point of being unpleasant in my book, a characteristic shared among the California “cult” cabs by the Pride Mountain Reserve, the Blanket Estate Paradise Hills, and especially the Harlan Estate. I’m glad somebody likes these wines, because it’s money they’re not spending on French and Italian wine. The Colgin was much more balanced and was a very nice wine, but my favorite was the Bryant Family. Of the “cult” cabs, Bryant has been my favorite along with Phelps, simply because they achieve a good balance between fruit, tannin, and oak, and the wine is pleasurable along all of its dimensions. Oh, and I almost forgot the Bond St. Eden, which was pretty good, along the lines of the Colgin but not as good as the Bryant Family. After this, we moved onto a few of our own wines; notables included the Robert Arnoux 2000 Suchots, the Quilceda Creek 1982 (which was mature and terrific), and the nearly immortal 1983 Quilceda Creek. The latter is still inky black and primary, and is either a quirk which will never mature or will be the first Washington wine to achieve Bordeaux-level aging potential. I’m betting on the latter. We finished up with the remains of the Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Himmelreich 2001 Eiswein “Junior” (from magnum!) from the night before, still bright and very tart, like eiswein should be.

Thoughts on the “Wine Cases”: Granholm v. Heald

The Supreme Court ruled today on the so-called "Wine Cases," consolidated under Granholm v. Heald.   In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy ruled (in what seems to be emerging as "his style") that the 21st Amendment does not override the "dormant Commerce Clause" when the two conflict, "as they do here."  The latter statement refers to the principle that the Commerce Clause implies that a state may not pass laws which give discriminatory preferences toward their own producers, and materially discourage commerce from other states. 

As Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog comments:

Justice Kennedy’s opinion tartly reminded the states that the Court, "time and again," had ruled that, "in all but the narrowest circumstances, state laws violate the Commerce Clause if they mandate differential treatment of in-state and out-of-state economic interests that benefits the former and burdens the latter."

This is really the essence of the opinion, although this view is not shared by the four-justice minority.   In particular, O’Connor reminded the Court of the specter of "demon rum," and Stevens traced the majority’s opinion to a moral stance towards alcohol which has clearly shifted since the generations that saw Prohibition as necessary for public morality and (more dubiously) safety.   These comments seem dreadfully anachronistic, considering that (in general) we’re not talking about preventing the shipment of fortified apple-jack and Ripple, but luxury products that are sold to freely consenting adults (after all, what 16 year old is trying to order cases of wine from out-of-state for friday’s night’s party?  Tell everyone about the Burgundy kegger this weekend!).

The impact of today’s ruling will be anybody’s guess, however.  As many online have noted, the ruling can be read narrowly or broadly; narrowly,  Granholm will force states to abandon discriminatory alcohol shipment laws, and if they wish to prevent out-of-state shipping they’ll have to prohibit in-state shipment as well.  We can well imagine that some of the currently "strict" wine shipment states will take this path, especially under the influence of lobbyists for regional distributorships which today form state-boundary "natural monopolies," and a currently fashionable  overeagerness to appear strict on issues of public morality.   We can also imagine that other states will not be able to get a complete ban on wine shipment past their citizenry, and that wine shipment will become freer in some cases. 

But little of this may affect wine collectors interested in wines from outside the United States.  Granholm speaks of wineries, not retailers.  One’s ability to order Bordeaux from an out-of-state retailer and have it shipped to one’s home or office will depend entirely upon how individual states attempt to reconcile their shipping laws with Granholm:  those that decide to liberalize their shipping and avoid the "complete" clampdown may become more amenable to shipping overall; the stricter states will likely continue to be lacunae on the wine collector’s map of hospitable places to live. 

Justice Kennedy, as usual, continues to craft opinions in ways that are intended to maximize liberty, even if the implementation will be fraught with local politics in this case.  For that we can be grateful.  One wonders, however, what concerns O’Connor and Stevens really have, at root.  It’s possible to be afraid of the social impact of crack cocaine, or in days gone by the gin-soaked underclass of Johnson’s London. 

But can we really imagine the social harm caused by Demon Merlot, and are we really worried by the specter of people wandering the streets with bottles of Gevrey-Chambertin discreetly tucked into paper bags?


One state where Granholm will have no immediate impact appears to be Tennessee, which already prohibits both in-state and out-of-state shipment of wine to consumers.

Books #27 – #30: Michelman, MacLeod, Banks, Lukacs

It’s been an eventful week, and I haven’t had much time to write.   I did, however, finish several books.  Since I don’t have time for four separate posts right now, I’ll summarize fairly briefly. 

Frank Michelman’s Brennan and Democracy uses the judicial work of William Brennan to illuminate what is perhaps the central problem of constitutional democracy, including (and perhaps especially) ours:  how to reconcile constitutionalism (the notion of a government constrained in its actions by law) and democracy (the notion of government and self-rule by a group of people).  These notions seem to go together quite easily, but this is largely because of compromises and institutional designs that are buried quite deeply in our national history.  In reality, it’s fairly easy for the wishes of majorities to conflict with constitutional limitations.  When this happens, the principle of constitutionalism holds those majoritarian choices, however democratically arrived at, as void and without legitimacy.  Sounds good, right?  The trouble begins when we ask how the twin principles of constitutionalism and democracy are balanced, and by whom.  The answer in the United States, at least most of the time, rests with courts, and in particular the Supreme Court.   Nine unelected judges, who hold office for life unless impeached, are the way in which majorities are constrained to act within constitutional limits.  And thus the way that these nine judges make decisions is of considerable importance.  All of this is background – Michelman’s book is, first, an exploration of arguments for how to deal with the conflict between limited government and majority rule, and second, an examination of how William Brennan – perhaps the late twentieth century’s most activist liberal justice, navigated these treacherous waters.  I’ll have more to say on this subject in upcoming posts.

John Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred is a connected series of "mini essays," exploring the history of political ideas and events since the early 1800’s in Europe and the United States.  Lukacs takes as his main theme the ending of the "Modern" era and the concomitant replacement of aristocracy and monarchy by democracy worldwide.  Naturally, this is a good thing, though Lukacs warns that liberal and limited democracy are being replaced by naked majoritarianism (or "populism"), and that increasingly in the twentieth century this populism was linked to aggressive nationalism with devastating results.  He sees these trends continuing in the United States, and I wholeheartedly agree – the replacement of political deliberation with electoral "publicity" contests is both an outgrowth of populism and its ongoing cause, and has led to a massive degredation in our public discourse.  I recommend Lukacs’s book highly, and although he can be quite the crank and disapproves of seemingly every aspect of contemporary life, when it comes to the large scale challenges facing democratic societies in an age of mass media and poor citizen participation, he’s right on the money.  It is not, however, an "easy" book by any means.  Lukacs writes at a very high level in this book, without detail or references, and presumes a strong knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth century intellectual and political history on the part of the reader.  That said, it repays the effort required.

The next two books were both fiction.  I’d had Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas on the shelf for some years, and just never found myself wanting to read it, but his Culture novels come highly recommended by many folks, so I finally cracked it, and enjoyed it.  The science isn’t detailed, but there is a great sensitivity to social and cultural conflict here, combined with grand scope and fast action.  I’ll probably keep going with the Culture novels and see how much I like a couple of the others. 

Finally, and sadly, I finished off the Fall Revolution series by Ken MacLeod, in reading The Sky Road.   Sadly, because I really haven’t read a fictional series this good in a long time, and now there aren’t any more to read.  I continue to be both amazed by the Fall Revolution series as storytelling and blown away by how MacLeod managed to weave together a plausible future history out of leftist and libertarian politics.  I approached The Sky Road with some trepidation, given the terrible reviews on Amazon.  Clearly, most of these came from folks who hadn’t read the other novels in the series and thus weren’t able to see how The Sky Road ties up a few last threads during the interval (on Earth) between The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division, in much the same way that Stone Canal and Cassini Division dovetail to create the story of New Mars.   If you haven’t read the other books, start at the beginning with Star Fraction

Might be awhile until I post on books again; having just finished a stack, I’ve embarked on the next batch, but they include Carroll’s book on evo-devo, Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition, Cass Sunstein’s One Case at a Time, and John Banville’s The Untouchable.  Several of these will take awhile.   Penrose is still anchoring the stack on the table, but I haven’t made any progress on that lately.

Books #25 and #26: The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal, by Ken MacLeod

I’ve been reading more than posting would indicate, so I’m going to try to catch up on a few posts this weekend. Much of my reading lately has been journal articles, and not directly relevant to the 50 Book Challenge, but I’ve got a few books to discuss.

Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series are among the best fiction I’ve read recently, having finished books one and two: The Star Fraction and The Stone Canal. I read the books out of order, randomly picking up The Cassini Division some weeks ago while heading to Yale. At the time, I thought the third (and “final” in the sense of chronologically latest and climactic) book in the series was good fun, and thought little more about it. I subsequently went back and read the first two, and the breadth of MacLeod’s achievement in the series is clear.

Speculative fiction is one way that we imagine the consequences of continuing our present course. Orwell is the most relevant example from the mainstream, but in smaller ways much of our literature does so. Science fiction simply allows this speculative imagination to be overt and more forward-looking, in exchange for a potential loss in realism. Charles Stross made much the same point recently in a discussion of trends within American and British speculative fiction. Stross also noted that American science fiction is in a transitional period. Overt depiction of politics or social change is either missing, or replaced by fascination with outright dystopia. We either imagine the future to be much like today – strong-state capitalist democracy, or we imagine the unraveling and decline of our civilization driven by the complete commoditization and commercialization of everything formerly considered “social” or “political.” Here, of course, I’m thinking of William Gibson, the Stephenson of Snow Crash, Bruce Sterling, etc. In other words, when Americans imagine a future that isn’t exactly like today, we imagine a dark future where the worst tendencies of our present society run rampant. There’s an argument to be made that such imagingings aren’t a bad thing; that dystopian social visions serve a valuable purpose in reminding us of the “forest” that lies behind the “trees” of our daily battles over the economy, culture, and law. Perhaps not surprisingly, I believe that this argument is precisely what Rorty expresses in the final chapters of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.

What makes the British writers feel different, and more “vital,” is the lack of “canalization” into futures which look like Bubble America run amok. Ken MacLeod, in the Fall Revolution series, accomplishes something very interesting – the artful mixture of utopian, dystopian, and pedestrian concerns that really describe any major social change. Stone Canal cements and widens the story begun in The Star Fraction, describing how AI technology interacts with three major social forces: libertarian capitalism, various titrations of socialism and communitarianism, and Green luddism. What makes MacLeod’s future feel expansive is the recognition of multiple social possibilities beyond the single globalized capitalist society which forms the obsession of the “cyberpunk” American authors, and which is celebrated as the triumph of “democracy” worldwide. Forget the politics and economics itself for a moment since MacLeod is clearly more leftist than virtually anyone in American politics today; progressives would do well to emulate his ability to imagine a future whose “forest” is more than simply the sum total of today’s “trees.”